What if we let it up to Arab artists to be the ones to tell their (hi)story ?
In the past few years, Arab aesthetics have been omnipresent in fashion, cinema, photography and music. For Arab creatives, this felt like a source of pride and the hope for greater visibility, at first. Till the day they realized Western creatives were covering those projects solo. With Ilyes Griyeb, Moroccan photographer and recent victim of plagiarism, we decided to talk about this reality. Initially published in French, this article was translated by Meriem Bennani.
“Hey, what did you think of The Blaze’s latest music video ?”
We had to answer this question about twenty times since February. “The Blaze’s latest music video”, it’s the visual gem that premiered last February for Territory, a track by Guillaume et Jonathan Alric, aka The Blaze. A highly crafted music video produced by Iconoclast (one of the biggest music video production companies worldwide) and shot in Algiers, which tells stories around masculinity and the return to origins. The video has encountered a quasi-unanimous success in French and international creative spheres. We naturally appreciated the effort, but couldn’t help wondering:
— Cool, but why Algiers ?
In an effort to understand the answer to this question, and thinking more generally about the reasons why European creatives have drawn inspiration from Arab countries for about 5 years, a few (non exhaustive) hypotheses have come to mind :
— These territories haven’t been fully photographically drained yet, therefore offering an easy alternative to over used postcard landscapes known from all.
— Less than a 3h flight away are complex societies, heavy in vivacious tensions that make for powerful narrative opportunities.
— Authenticity (THE creative token of the 2010’s) is omnipresent there. From locations to casting and styling, everything is original and feels real.
— Globalized thinking is conscious and diverse. The Blaze or the Fearless Girl of Wall Street have scored 5 Grand Prizes at the last Lions de Cannes.
— With the return of 1990’s fashion, the figure of the “racaille” (sportswear loving North-African or African alpha male) has made a come back for creators, overused in fashion, photography and cinema.
“But why does it bother you ? There are many Arab creatives working in Europe.”
True. And we can’t help but notice that those are the most successful ones. Nabil Ayouch, Abdellatif Kechiche, Hassan Hajjaj, Leila Slimani owe their artistic recognition to their opportunity to express themselves in Europe. Which brings us to the next point.
European creatives can take offers from Arab countries faster and more efficiently than local artists due to a greater economic, political and cultural capital :
1- Western creatives have closer access to the expectations of the cultural market and can subsequently fulfill them better.
2- Cultural markets are quasi inexistant in Arab countries.
3- The Algerian ministry of culture’s budget amounts to €130 millions for this year, while France’s is up to €33 billion.
4- Arab creatives do not benefit from the same freedom of circulation as their Western peers, because their passports are practically useless.
5- Western creatives are more connected to globalized decision making networks.
These few factors have allowed for The Blaze’s manager’s intuition to shoot a video in Algeria (1), with the help of a label (Believe) to fund it (2), eventually receiving extra financial help from the state (3), flying a full French crew to Algiers (4) and finally applying for creative awards that will lock the video into posterity.
If any of the young Algerians casted in the music video had tried to pursue the reverse endeavor in France, their quest would have ended at the French consulate where the visa application (denied most times for the youth in fear of illegal immigration) would cost €90 (in a country where minimum wage is €150 /month).
« Alright, things are unbalanced, but at least these creations promote Arab countries worldwide.”
That’s not the problem. That’s already covered by people like Yann Arthus-Bertrand. What we see overall is a fetishization of those countries social troubles. Something like an offsite moodboarding of their socio-economical weaknesses.
What makes Arab societies interesting is often symptomatic of their social and economical challenges.
Let us go back to The Blaze’s music video :
— The video shows a poor neighborhood, where houses are piled up on top of each other and familial promiscuity is a daily reality. Those neighborhoods , not up to urban planning regulations, experience about a dozen building collapses a year. Promiscuity and lack of intimacy have been a recurring source of mental illness among the youth.
— The youth is idle, living in a constant state of chill. Smoking hookah all day long, dancing on rooftops, going to the beach. The main cause playing into the realism of those scenes : youth unemployment rates, up to 29,9% in Algeria for 2016.
— A homo-erotic tension electrifies the different tableaux composed by the directors in which overly masculine men are sitting on each other’s laps, play tag on the beach or dance together. But what can emerge from the omnipresence of men is the absence of women. Their status in some Arab communities has been regressing in the past decades, to the point of their disappearance from public spaces and life.
“Very well, but this trend can create opportunities for Arab artists.”
Not really. One of the writers of this text, photographer Ilyes Griyeb, has just been painfully hit by this very issue. Skepta, one the most important UK rappers and leading figure of grime, has recently used Ilyes’s work without agreement or credits, overlaying his new clothing line’s logo on top of the images. A couple months later, he puts out a lookbook shot in Marrakech, ripping off Ilyes’s style, and a mood video directed by Dexter Navy (who makes videos for A$ap Rocky among others). In addition to the direct cultural appropriation at play here, this is a clear case of image theft and plagiarism. To which we could add, just for fun, the extreme bad taste of the launch party, where bags of spices and bellydancers mixed with ironic 90’s looks…. and Syrian singer (?) Omar Souleyman, 2010’s hipster icon.
By fetishizing misery and appropriating attributes that are extremely personal to Moroccan artists (Ilyes mostly photographs family members), Western creatives decide to ignore a colonization of ideas that cannot be legitimized by their global freedom of circulation. As seducing as they can be, the visual assets in those images cannot be separated from their political contexts.
“So, what to do so that Arab artists can be the own narrators of their stories?”
Hire them with decent rates. Show their work in your galeries. Reach out to local photographers to shoot your magazine stories. Invite them to perform in your festivals.
If you don’t know any, here are a few names:
Meriem Bennani, artiste Lina Laraki, artist Amine Bendriouich, designer Issam Harris, musician Le collectif Think Tanger Lioumness 7liwa, musician Shayfeen, musician Malca, musician Yassine Morabite, designer Hicham Gardaf, photographer Mashrou’ Leila, musicians Yasmine Hatimi, photographer Yoriyas Yassine Alaoui Ismaili, photographer Salim Bayri, artist Raouia Boularbah, artist Sonia Terrab, writer Fayçal Azizi, musician Mehdi Sefrioui, photographer Rim Battal, poet Kamal Hachkar, director Mohcine Aoki, fashion art director Yasser Ameur, artist Abdes Alaoui, musician Sarah Slimi, photographer Driss Bennis, musician Casa Voyager, label Joseph Ouechen, photographer